A coalition of Massachusetts health advocates and civic leaders is lobbying for a new pool of money, possibly funded by a tax on insurers, that would pay for programs to stem preventable illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease that are fueling medical costs.
Under the plan, insurers would be assessed a tax on what they now pay each year to cover the hospital bills of their subscribers. The fee is similar to one already levied on insurers by the state to pay for childhood vaccines and care for the uninsured.
The group, scheduled to detail its campaign Thursday at the State House, said the initiative should be a key part of lawmakers’ ongoing debate about controlling health care costs.
“The state has its priorities backward,’’ said Brian Rosman, research director for Health Care for All, a consumer group. “We invest so much in treating people who are sick, and we invest so little in preventing people from getting sick in the first place.’’
Rosman said a yearly charge of 0.5 percent on the total each insurer pays for hospital care would raise about $70 million to pay for community-based programs that bolster health, such as improving sidewalks and bicycle lanes and offering healthier foods in child care centers.
A bill, which contains the broad outlines of the proposal without setting a specific assessment, was filed last year and is inching through the Legislature. Supporters are hoping to breathe life into their campaign by linking to the broader debate on reining in health care costs.
A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that a 5 percent reduction in the prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure could save Massachusetts roughly $135 million in medical spending within one to two years and as much as $450 million in five years.
But health insurers and some business groups are not keen on the proposed tax and warn that consumers would end up bearing the brunt of the plan in the form of higher insurance premiums.
“This bill does nothing to give employers and families the relief they need now from rising health care costs,’’ said Eric Linzer, spokesman for the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, a trade group.
Jon Hurst - president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which represents about 3,500 businesses - said an expanding list of illnesses that state regulators require insurance plans to cover is forcing employers to shoulder more costs. Another insurance tax that would be passed on to businesses would be hard to handle, he said.
“You are making health insurance premiums a tax, and slowly but surely this will erode public support for mandated health insurance,’’ he said.
Nancy Turnbull, an associate dean at the Harvard School of Public Health, said most Massachusetts insurers could easily afford to absorb a modest assessment without passing the costs on to consumers.
Turnbull said that the state’s largest insurers saw huge increases in earnings last year, and that, collectively, insurers have $3.4 billion in their reserve accounts.
“I think it would be appropriate to redirect some of the surplus to investment in public health, and the plans would benefit from this because it would make us a healthier Commonwealth,’’ Turnbull said.
Representative Steven Walsh, a Lynn Democrat who is working on health care cost-control legislation in the House, said he believed the proposed assessment on insurers would not solve the underlying problems.
“This proposal on its face would drive up premiums,’’ Walsh said.
“Prevention and wellness are certainly important components that we have talked about and intend to address in health reform,’’ he said. “This idea is just one of many that has been suggested.’’
A report released Tuesday by the Institute of Medicine, an independent panel of specialists that advises the federal government, recommended that the United States at least double its yearly spending on public health programs and spend the dollars more efficiently on prevention programs. It suggested a tax on medical services to fund the initiative.